Greek unions promised to fill the streets of central Athens on Tuesday at the start of a two-day strike to protest painful austerity measures demanded by international lenders as the price for more financial aid.
"We expect a dynamic and massive participation in the strike and the march to the centre of Athens. We will have 48 hours of working people, unemployed, young people in the streets," ADEDY’s leader Spyros Papaspyros told Reuters.
With Greece teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, parliament is due to vote this week on a package of spending cuts, tax increases and privatisations agreed as part of a massive bailout aimed at averting the euro zone’s first default.
Prime Minister George Papandreou appealed to lawmakers late on Monday to back the measures in two votes on Wednesday and Thursday, which he said represented the final chance for Greece to get back on its feet.
Euro zone authorities are working flat-out with banks and insurers to devise a scheme whereby private bondholders can share the burden of further funding for Greece without prompting credit ratings agencies to declare a selective default.
European policymakers are also quietly exploring contingency plans to keep Greece afloat with emergency liquidity if parliament were to reject all or part of the package, three euro zone sources told Reuters on Monday.
The austerity plan has caused deep anger among Greeks disillusioned with years of political corruption and inefficiency and now bitterly resentful of the conditions imposed by the European Union and International Monetary Fund.
Following weeks of protests and rolling strikes, ADEDY, the public sector union representing half a million civil servants and GSEE, which represents 2 million private sector workers, are hoping to pressure deputies ahead of the votes.
Local transport is expected to be brought to a standstill, rolling stoppages by air traffic controllers are expected to hit airlines and ferry departures from Piraeus port in Athens were also affected, although other ports were operating normally.
In addition, postal services, hospitals and many private businesses were also expected to be hit.
More than 5,000 police are expected to be deployed in central Athens, especially to protect parliament, the focus of weeks of protests by demonstrators who have camped out in the neighbouring Syntagma Square.
The square was very quiet in the morning sunshine on Tuesday but protesters have called for major rallies to coincide with the strikes and have said they will try to surround the parliament building and prevent lawmakers entering.
Greece is stuck in its worst recession since the 1970s, with a youth unemployment rate of more than 40 percent and public finances shattered by a debt equivalent to some 150 percent of gross domestic product.
Deep in deficit and unable to borrow on financial markets, Greece depends on international support to keep going. A default would spread contagion around the 17-nation single currency area and cause a deep shock to the global economy.
Newspaper editorials warned of the huge dangers facing Greece if parliament does not pass the package, with the centre-right Kathimerini daily noting that a "deeply distorted view" appeared to be taking hold that lenders would continue to fund Greece whatever it does.
"It is obvious that all those who espouse this view ignore what is really happening in Europe, they ignore the hazards," the newspaper said.
However the conservative opposition has refused to back the package and the view that the bitter medicine demanded by the EU and IMF will kill off any hopes of growth is widespread.
"The medium-term austerity package is a recipe that deepens the recession and puts Greece in deep freeze," Papaspyros said.
"We must get out of this situation fast, we need policies that support social cohesion and growth so that the peoples’ lives will not go bankrupt," he said.